Yes, stay close to your clients, but also to the media

WPP's Mark Read has issued his take during this 'summer of discontent': "I'd advise clients to stay close to their customer. Stay close to the agency."

I'd go one further than Mark Read and say: "Stay close to the media."

For those that have been here before, you will be aware of the drill. Recession is on the horizon, purse strings are being tightened, and in this industry, we’re re-thinking exactly how important that press release about a new fridge really is.

Recession talk is like a run on the bank. Fear strikes, the chatter gets louder, and before you know it, it’s happened.

‘Reading the room’ is a big part of our remit, more than ever right now. Considering every facet of consumer spending is the universal strategy across every press office.

And the coming few months are going to be challenging in the extreme as we face a crash in consumer confidence.

Deeply depressing for sure, but what do we do about it? And, remember, you’re being paid to promote that new fridge.

The simple truth is this: we must play our part in turning things around.

While marketing must adapt to this new landscape, and adopt an appropriate tonality amid the crisis, the biggest mistake it can make is going quiet.

Consumers will still spend their hard-earned money, but will turn to brands they trust and value.

Publishers are not immune to the downturn. Advertising spend, already damaged by the pandemic, will take a further hit.

The cost of the very paper that print editions are made from has soared. Last November, The Economist quoted one newspaper boss saying: "It's like tasering an elderly person who is already on a pacemaker."

Fewer pages means fewer stories. The move to online will gather apace.

But it is tough to monetise digital news. Those behind paywalls with fare better, but their audiences, by design are niche. The free to air publishers are using a variety of strategies to turn this around, almost all aimed at driving mass audience numbers based on page views and engagement. This presents a huge challenge to PR.

Bleak, right? But these challenges are not insurmountable. Great ideas will always cut through.

The litmus test for every project must be this - would you read it? If you cannot answer that question with a resounding yes, you're on the wrong track.

I am reminded of a conversation I had some years back with a publicist from an agency that shall remain nameless.

Relating that a former colleague of mine on The Sun was receiving 800 press releases daily when they used to receive less than 100, and that, as a result, she had stopped reading any from someone PRs she didn't know, the publicist replied: "But that's her job."

Except it isn't. Journalists do not care what our clients want. They only care about what their readers want.

In these straitened times making our work interesting and relevant isn't enough. We must make it matter.

Chris Pharo is managing director at 72Point

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